Virunga is Africa’s oldest National Park and home to amazing animal species that are on the verge of extinction: mountain gorillas and okapi. The park is located across 3 different countries: Uganda, DRC and Rwanda and was designated in 1979 as UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. It survived many civil wars, but is now facing even worse threats: oil concessions are covering 85% of its territories (WWF). British company – Soco wanted to extract oil for “scientific purposes”, fortunately WWF filed complaint against and thanks to this big campaign, Soco suspended its actions in Virunga. However, the Congolese government still hasn’t cancelled all permits for oil exploration, which are anyways illegall to start with as it is against the UNESCO’s wildlife protection laws.

Map of Virunga Park

Source: The Official Website of Virunga National Park: https://virunga.org/the-park

Moutain gorilla became a national symbol for DRC which increases its chances for survival. Elephants in Virunga Park are in far worst situation: in the last years their numbers dropped from 3000 to just 400… Even though over 150 rangers are protecting the park, poachers are just outnumbering them. In 2014 the chief warden of rangers in Virunga National Park, Emmanuel De Merode was shot by poachers and he only survived because local people helped him, 150 other rangers were not as lucky ( number of rangers killed by poachers since 1996). In the documentary “Virunga”, Melanie Gouby (French journalist who was working undercover to reveal Soco’s plan for oil exploration) suggested that attack on De Merode was part of Soco’s dirty game. This was never proved. Emmanuel De Merode gave an amazing Ted Talk about Virunga Rangers and explains how 30% of park revenues goes towards local communities to build their capacity and to stop production of charcoal:

The “Virunga” Documentary was the best documentary I have ever seen and of course, I cried when I saw one of the gorilla orphans dying in the Senkwekwe Center  , it was due to infection but he was clearly under stress from arising armed conflict near the centre, when the M23 rebels took over part of the park.  Center’s name “Senkwekwe” comes after the dominant silverback gorilla who was murdered in 2007 (three other members of his family were killed on the same day) by  illegal charcoal mafia. And why kill the gorillas? So that the park will lose its most important “attraction” and won’t be protected anymore. What can be done to prevent this tragedy from happening again i future? The answer is simple: employ the local community. Yes, probably the word “simple” is misleading here, it is not only unfair to burden poor local community with wildlife protection but to expect from them to starve while mountain gorillas are being fed is just inhumane. As explained below, gorilla’s biggest enemy are humans, therefore by employing locals and giving them different source of income tragedies can be avoided. Lesson was learned from the 2007 deaths committed by charcoal mafia, now as an outcome of cooperation between Virunga Foundation & ICCN, three run-of-river turbines provide electricity for the local community with aim of supplying 100 MW to a region of some 4 million people (Steiner 2015).

 

Gorilla orphanage

The Senkwekwe Center, located at park headquarters in Rumangabo. Source: Brent Stirton

Before researching on this topic I assumed that danger of species extinction increases in the times of conflict, however an interesting data proved that this change is not too significant. In case of mountain gorillas the death toll due to military activity claimed lives of 12 to 17 gorillas in period from 1992 to 2000. Main threats to mountain gorillas are:

  • local human population: refugee camps near parks
  • habitat loss
  • direct poaching
  • indirect poaching – traps set in park for other animals
  • human diseases – genetic similarity between humans and gorillas makes the more prone to human illnesses (this occurred especiallu during Rwandan genocide when big flows of refugess entered the park)
  • human-caused fires
  • political pressure to free up land for farm use and charcoal production

Who wants to watch mountain gorillas eating leaves and pay $750? Count me in! With only 880 of them left it would be an amazing experience! It is absolutely heart warming how the rangers look after gorillas: to make sure that gorillas won’t get infections from tourist there is a rule of 7m between humans and these majestic animals (Maekawa et al. 2015). Park is a great business for the DRC and even when the entrance fees raised from $395 to $750 there was no decrease in numbers of visitors. WWF estimated that tourism in Virunga could bring even up to £235 milion per year.

There are other parks with big families of mountain gorillas: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, both located in south-western Uganda and both were not welcomed too warmly by local communities. Serious steps and proper large-scale planning had to take place in order to start the project communities needed to see the sustainable benefits derived from the parks. This would be impossible without sustainable agriculture programmes and on-farm substitution aimed to reduce demand for park resources (IIED, 2010).

Why should states invest in community projects rather than arms for their rangers?

  • increase in small arms can only lead to increase in armed conflicts, tourist won’t travel to unstable regions which equls decrease in revenues
  • government’s investments in ecotourism bring good press and raises state’s position on the international arena, which means that during times of conflict and post-conflict, this country has bigger chance of drawing international attention.
  • investments in local communities means long-term development and raises local awareness about importance of respecting the nature as it is the nature that brings the money to them (this can be only achieved if revenue-sharing is fair and inclusive of local communities).

Most importantly I would like to quote Canadian environmentalist, David R. Boyd and his observation about biodiversity projects:

“Imagine other government programs- redudcing poverty, rehabilitating criminals, subsidizing buisness, etc.- achieving a 90% success rate”. (Boyd, 2015: 18).”

Overall, the success is there, the mountain gorilla population increased from 380 in 2003 to 880 now (Steiner, 2015).

 

Resources:

Humphreys, J., Smith., M.L.R. (2011) War and Wildlife: the Clausewitz connection. International Affairs 87:1 pp 121.-142.

International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED, 2010). Development AND Gorillas?

Maekawa, M., Lanjouw, A., Rutagarama, E., Sharp, D. (2015). Moutain gorilla ecotourism: Supporting macroeconomic growth and providing local livelihoods.

Official website of the Virunga National Park: https://virunga.org/ (map)

Steiner, A. (2015) Putting a National Park to Work. UNEP

Featured image (top) and 2 photographs were taken by Brent Stirton : http://www.brentstirton.com/